By James Laber 

For the last two years brewers in Europe have waged a liquid arms race to create the world’s highest ABV (alcohol by volume) beer. Since fall 2008 the ABV of the most potent beer on the planet has more than doubled from 27 percent to a quite-literally staggering 60 percent.

These probably aren’t the beers you’re drinking. Most beer has an ABV of 4-6 percent, with 12 percent typically the limit for beers brewed using traditional methods. Bud Light and Guinness both have an ABV of 4.2 percent, for example. But over the past decade brewers have experimented with abnormal methods of brewing, which can greatly increase ABV.

A little background on alcohol content: Alcohol comes from the breakdown of sugar in the fermentation process. The amount of fermentable sugar in the brew is the most important aspect in determining ABV. Most brewing yeast used to create beer cannot produce an ABV above 12 percent. Innovative brewers recently discovered methods for exceeding this cap by using champagne yeasts and “freeze distilling.” Alcohol has a lower freezing point than water; a brew can be set to an extremely low temperature and when the water in the mix freezes, it is removed, leaving behind a potent mix. It is a complex process, with little margin for error.

These are the three breweries pushing the limits and gunning for the title of strongest beer in the world.

Brew Dog Brewery, Scotland

Brew Dog Brewery is a relative newcomer to the craft beer scene, but what it lacks in experience it makes up for in gusto. Owners James Watt and Martin Dickie founded the brewery in 2006. Since 2009 Brew Dog has held the title of producing the world’s strongest beer three different times.

The Brews

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Tactical Nuclear Penguin 
Fear not. No penguins are actually nuked, although a few brewers probably get very cold. Tactical Nuclear Penguin is made using the freeze distillation process three times, and this following a 14-month aging process in double barrels. With an ABV of 27 percent, Tactical Nuclear Penguin was the daddy of all strong beers for a short stretch at the end of 2009. According to the brewers it “should be enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance in exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whiskey, a Frank Zappa album or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost.”

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Sink The Bismarck 
Sink the Bismarck was brewed largely in response to Brew Dog losing the strongest beer title so quickly to German brewery Schorschbräu (more on it later). As the name implies, Brew Dog rolled out the big guns to take down the competition’s flagship and brewed this quadruple IPA with an astonishing ABV of 41 percent, which just happens to coincide with the year The Bismarck was sunk by the Brits. It has four times the amount of hops and bitterness of a traditional IPA and is freeze-distilled four times.

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The End Of History 
After losing the crown to Schorschbräu again after just a weeks, Brew Dog seemed irritated and decided to go for the knockout punch. The brewers say that “this 55 percent (ABV) beer should be drank in small servings whilst exuding an endearing pseudo vigilance and reverence … this is to be enjoyed with a weather eye on the horizon for inflatable alcohol industry Nazis, judgmental washed up neo-prohibitionists or any grandiloquent, ostentatious foxes.” Indeed.

The name of this beer comes from philosopher Francis Fukuyama, who defined history as the evolution of political systems. He traced this through the ages to the Western Democratic system that Fukuyama considers the end point of man’s political evolution and consequently the end of history. Brew Dog has said that The End of History is the last high-ABV beer it will brew and considers it the end point of how far it can push the boundaries of extreme brewed beer.

Only 12 bottles of this expensive ($780) blonde Belgian ale were brewed, using nettles from the Scottish Highlands and juniper berries. Because this beer is so rare, it comes with its own certificate of authenticity and is packaged in road kill, because what better way to enjoy an expensive and rare beverage than drinking it out of a stuffed squirrel? Never have taxidermy and alcohol been mixed in such a fine fashion.

Schorschbräu Brewery, Germany

Schorschbräu is located in the Franconia region of Germany, known for its numerous lakes and tradition of brewing good beer. Founded in 1996, in an era of falling beer consumption, Schorschbräu wanted to infiltrate a beer market that was highly concentrated and dominated by multinational beer corporations with little care for the quality of their products. Like many of the smaller breweries here in the United States, Schorschbräu puts its emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Schorschbräu has been leapfrogging Brew Dog for the past 20 months in producing the most potent beer known to man.

The Brew 

In the spring of 2009, Schorschbräu developed Schorschbock, which had an ABV of 31 percent. After being dethroned by Brew Dog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Schorschbräu responded by making a stronger batch of Schorschbock with a 40 percent ABV, which held the title for three months in early 2010. Brew Dog responded with Sink the Bismarck, thus angering the Krauts, forcing them to up the ante with an even stronger Schorschbock at 43 percent ABV this past June.

Brew Dog again topped Schorschbräu with The End of History, but because it was produced in such a small quantity, Schorschbräu contends that Brew Dog cannot claim the title of producing the world’s most robust beer. A sign in its brewery reads: “3 Things to do before you die: 1. Shake hands with the Yeti 2. Find the Monster of Loch-Ness 3. Drink Scottish Beer of 55% vol.”

Brouwerij ‘t Koelschip,  Netherlands 

While the Scottish and German feud was heating up, a small Dutch brewery, ‘t Koelschip, which means The Refrigerated Ship, started brewing the most alcoholic beer (as of this writing) in the world.

The Brew 

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Start The Future 
At a whopping 60 percent ABV, Start the Future (a not-so-subtle jab at Brew Dog’s The End of History) hit the market in late July 2010. One bottle of this beer is the equivalent of downing an entire 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Probably not one for the beer bong.

For now, Start the Future is the true king of strong beers, but somewhere someone is trying to top it. If the trend of increasing ABVs continues as it has for the past few years, we will have a beer with 100 percent ABV in January 2012. This, of course, would pretty much be pure ethanol and probably undrinkable.

Where is the American superbeer?

So where is America in this race to create the daddy of all power beers? Shouldn’t we in the land of amazing craft beer and Four Loko have a brewery contending for the top spot on the pinnacle of potent brew?

Sammuel E. Merritt, President of the Civilization of Beer and certified beer cicerone, said that America has a long tradition of strong beer such as the Dogfish Head and Sam Adams, each of which have owned the title over the past decade. They might be having difficulty keeping up with their European brethren because of government regulation.

“American breweries aren’t really jumping on board and it could be due to regulation,” he said. “Regulation in the U.S. is immense. Distribution can also be difficult. Each state has different laws and what (alcohol) can be legal,” he added, noting the current controversy surrounding Four Loko and its banning in certain states and counties.

Matt Simpson, beer taste expert, craft beer consultant and proprietor of The Beer Sommelier thinks money plays a role.

“I think the thinking among American brewers is that (brewing strong beers) is a waste of time,” said Simpson. “It takes an incredible amount of ingredients, time and money to brew these beers and there is no market for beers like that right now.”

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Are super beers actually beer?

As brewers continue to push the limits of liquid potency, arguments within the brewing community have arisen over whether or not these super brews are even beer. Detractors argue that when you alter the traditional brew process drastically it becomes something else entirely, not beer.

Simpson was at first skeptical, but after putting his expert palate to the test he decided that these brews were beer-like, at least in taste.

“My opinion before having (a high-ABV brew) is that these beers at these proofs aren’t going to taste like beer anymore,” said Simpson. “The strongest I’ve had was the 41 percent Sink the Bismark and I will tell you that, unbelievably, it maintains all the characteristics of beer. It was rich, robust … downright aromatic and flavorful.”

Merritt agrees that the beers can be tasty, but he can see the point the naysayers are trying to make.

“I think the controversy, that people are arguing that these aren’t beer, I can see how some would think it is kind of valid,” said Merritt. “Distillation can come in many forms. Say you make bourbon in Kentucky, it starts basically as beer. Distill it and you get whiskey. Detractors are arguing that when you change (the brewing process) that it is distillation and not beer anymore.”

Whether or not these brews are technically considered beer is a decision Merritt is happy to leave to others; for now he just enjoys the innovation coming out the competition.

“I think it is great what (the breweries) are doing. It’s good to be aware that you can push envelops when brewing,” he said. “They are teaching people about what beer can be and seem to have fun doing it.”

(James Laber is a freelance writer in Montana who writes about alcoholic beverages for Made Man.)